“You have covered physical, emotional and cognitive but surely spiritual is the key factor in many people’s resilience?” the question came from a black South African business woman last week. Even across our team she will get a range of answers. Spirit in Action can be the end goal, quietly ignored or actively rejected.

The topic is contentious and potentially explosive. People can react with anger or contempt. The increasing prevalence of substance abuse, anxiety, depression, and suicide suggest a crisis of meaning. Without constraining the liberty of religious choice, perhaps the spiritual path could do with some cautious and curious dialogue.

Our Resilience Diagnostic and Development model puts “spirit in action” right at the top of our spiral. In a dynamic world of multiple spiritual pathways and secular alternatives, we owe our participant a considered response. We welcome your participation in the dialogue.

I address her question in three parts:

  1. What we mean by Spirit in Action
  2. What a modern belief system might embrace?
  3. What practices underpin progress on a spiritual path?

Let us be respectful and inclusive of the many positive contributions that faith brings to our lives.

Spirit in Action: Part 1

Humans seek meaning. We’ve generated a diverse array of stories to make sense of existence. Some are more helpful than others. Hunter-gatherer communities came up with naturalistic magic. Agricultural – largely patriarchal – communities gave rise to the major spiritual traditions about 2,500 years ago. Some hold to traditional beliefs, while others embrace aspects of modern life such as electronic donations, apps and science.

Today, new spiritual promises compete with the older traditions. Science, sport, designer drugs, music, technology, biological diversity, and money compete successfully for our attention. In the past, you were a loyal convert or dead. Now, we are free to believe and do whatever we like. The thought: ‘god watches over me and might send me to hell’ is less scary.

Without the threat of hell or social sanction, a spiritual path is voluntary. It can be a lonely struggle of self-deprivation, deliberate practice, tenacity and patience. Few take it seriously. On the other hand, the decline in spiritual belief and practice correlates with increasing substance abuse, anxiety, depression and suicide.

As we pursue our own selfish and impulsive desires, we create tremendous suffering, threaten much of the life on earth and even our own existence.

Given the pickle humanity has created, perhaps we actually need a spiritual quest more than ever. But it must be fit for purpose in 2020 – not 500 BC. To work, it requires the principals of evidence-based (true), integral (respecting body, heart, mind and the huge diversity of life) and practical (actionable in effective ways right now).

What is “Spirit in Action”

One can be a force for good without being spiritual. Medicine strives to reduce suffering and disease, NGO’s tackle worthy tasks, and individuals change lives. Secular humanism – a non-religious, evidence-based and coordinated endeavour to improve the lives of humans does not prescribe a belief.

Curing disease, educating women, providing clean water, and delivering justice changes beliefs and delivers extraordinary outcomes. The dedication, self-sacrifice and noble aspirations are actually quite ‘spiritual’. ‘God’ becomes ‘Good’.

Beyond secular humanism, mapping a spiritual path to enlightenment is no easy task. The delicate and all-important question is: “Do I have to believe in God?”

Our hypothesis: spiritual is an experience of union with a greater reality than our small, temporary individual existence.

Your greater reality may be nature, truth, evolution, love, the universe, or simply GOD. This reality – let’s call it Spirit (capital ‘S’) – is vast, largely unknown but integral to the existence of your small self (little ‘s’). When your little self feels fully at peace with and connected to Spirit, we feel the emotions of joy, bliss, love and awe.

As we grow, learn and develop wisdom, our conception of Spirit matures. White, bearded, old man on cloud becomes awe in the presence of nature, and then settles into an abiding peace, love and joy. Eventually, we experience total unity with all in the unfolding moment.

It is humble and wise to honour a higher force beyond ourselves. To make sense of Spirit is a basic freedom that liberates the small self from suffering. The more integrated and connected to Spirit we are the more peace, love and joy we will experience and radiate. While this quest is challenging, without it we face an existential crisis. This quest for meaning and connection is Spirit in Action.

As a scientific mind, an alternative perspective is attractive. Let’s say I recognise the reality of my body, my emotions and my thought. I know they can be quantified. It is clear to me that certain practices and skills lead to a healthier body, positive emotions and clarity of thought. This is good for me and others.

It is possible that my spirit (small ‘s’) is in action, when I experience peace (calm physiology), vitality (healthy body), love (positive emotions), and focus (clarity of thought)? In other words, when my physical, emotional and cognitive resources are at their best, I experience myself at a higher altitude. I am integrated and have become more whole.

This experience of integral being is not just body, emotion and mind. It is something more. Could we call it spirit? I think so. When we are in the integrated state that many call flow, we serve ourselves and others much more skilfully.

In fact, both perspectives are necessary.

Having faith in Spirit, Nature or God, is clearly a source of resilience. Specifically, faith has been shown to help us bounce. It most certainly helps us connect with others. Spiritual community is essential to nurture practice. Our connection to a greater reality is the outer path of the spiritual quest.

When physically compromised, angry or depressed, or confused in mind, it is much harder to connect and integrate with a greater reality. When spirit emerges from a flourishing body, heart and mind, the outer path is clear. We feel resourced and motivated to embark on the spiritual quest. This is the inner path.

My conclusion is that a greater reality – what we call Spirit – is part of Spirit in action. To understand, connect with, and honour this greater reality is the goal of your resilience journey. Each one of us is free to explore this path.

Equally essential, this challenging quest demands that you cultivate and grow physical, emotional and mental strength. This is your source of power for the quest. It is, in our view, also a key part of spirit in action. Once again, each of us is free to embark on the practices that work for you.

In part two, I explore what a modern belief system might embrace.

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